Written by Classical Liberal
This essay sets out the main developments in council housing during the twentieth century: from the situation before council housing to providing decent homes for soldiers returning home from the First World War, slum clearance initiatives, the post Second World War housing crisis, to current issues of maintaining an ageing stock of council houses and implementing regeneration strategies.
Britain’s cities began to grow substantially during the nineteenth century, as rural workers were drawn to the cities searching for work in the emerging industries. House building was mainly in the hands of private builders seeking to make a profit. Most people rented from private landlords. Mortgages were not available, and only wealthy people could afford to buy their own houses.
Poor housing conditions in overcrowded inner-city areas led to concerns about public health. Under this pressure, the Government began to look at housing problems. It was argued that new private houses were too costly for most working-class families, and the Government was eventually persuaded to intervene.
Central Government began to pass several Acts to address these problems. The most important being the ‘Housing for the Working Classes Act’ of 1890.
However, until 1919, although councils had the power to build new houses, most had done very little.
Most pre-1919 corporation housing came with relatively high rents, which failed to provide housing for the very poor. Rents were high because before 1919, corporation dwellings did not receive a subsidy from the central Government.
Before the First World War, nearly all new houses were supplied by private builders. However, the war changed this dramatically. House building virtually came to a halt as the war imposed other priorities. As the 1918 General Election approached, it became clear that Britain faced an acute housing shortage. And, a scarcity of materials and labour meant that private builders were incapable of supplying houses with rents that the typical working-class household could afford. The war also heralded a new social attitude that compelled the Government to take on national responsibility for providing what Lloyd George famously described as ‘homes fit for heroes’.
The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 (The Addison Act) was a watershed in the provision of council housing. Local councils were given the mandate to build council houses and incentivised to do so by generous subsidies. Councils in areas of need could apply for subsidies, which shared the costs of this new housing between the Treasury, local ratepayers, and tenants.
Initially, planners advocated new suburban ‘garden’ estates on the outskirts of cities. These estates, mostly comprised of three bedroom houses for families, were designed to create self-contained communities of low-density housing. Often restricted to twelve dwellings per acre, each provided a generous sized garden to encourage the tenants to grow their vegetables. This housing was generally of high quality. And, although some slum clearance occurred in the 1920s, the main emphasis of this period to provide new general needs housing on greenfield land.
Most of these new council estates offered decent housing for the better off working-classes. However, rents were still relatively high and subletting was forbidden, so they did not provide a solution to the housing needs of the poorer members of society.
The Wheatley Act of 1924 was passed to secure a continuous building programme for fifteen years and to supply homes that could be rented at lower rates so that lower-paid workers could afford them. This resulted in new council houses being smaller and estates having a higher density. New three-bedroom council houses tended to be 620 square feet compared to over 1,000 square feet in 1919. Thus, council housing was slowly becoming residualised and aimed at the very poor. Nonetheless, council houses still tended to offer decent quality accommodation.
Following this initial impetus to reduce the post-war housing shortage, councils began to change tack and focus upon the problems of existing slum housing. The Housing Act of 1930 promoted mass programmes to demolish slums and replace them with new houses. Unlike the garden estates built directly after the First World War, much of the slum clearance was replaced with flats, mostly three to five storeys high.
Because of central policy and the high cost of inner-city land, most of the new homes were built on estates in the outskirts of these cities. New tenants had to balance the benefits of a well-equipped new home against a loss of community and a longer commute to work.
Tenancy conditions were strict, and regulations were enforced from the start. The oppressive housing management put off some tenants. In Liverpool, women housing managers were employed to inspect properties and instruct tenants on good housekeeping.
(… to be continued tomorrow)
Photo by hoxtonchina